Can HR Help Companies See “The Forest for the Trees”

One must step back from a Monet painting to see "the forest for the trees"

It is said that if you stand too close to something (either physically or emotionally), you’re bound to miss the “big picture.”  In a more ethereal way, St. Paul writes about being “in the world but not of the world.” Applying this in a corporate context is no less tricky than in a spiritual one, of course – but I believe this is an important part of HR’s role, to serve as an “internal external consultant.”  Because we serve all constituencies in the organization, we’re better positioned than most to help the organization step back and see “the forest from the trees” at those moments when perspective is necessary.

Lessons from a Planning Meeting

I recently witnessed the following during an organization’s monthly management meeting:

  • Meeting Leader:  “The XYZ line of business is no longer very profitable for us, due to significant changes in the marketplace. In fact, we’re barely breaking even on it.”
  • Meeting  (sadly):  “But we really love the XYZ business – it’s what we’re all about.”
  • Another Participant (eagerly): “I have an idea.  Maybe we can get more XYZ business by doing ….”
  • Other Participants (chiming in with enthusiasm): “That’s a great idea! Or maybe we could …”
  • Advisor: “I know that XYZ has been a big part of our history.  But at this point, isn’t it true that XYZ really just fuels the ABC business, which is actually our core – and highly profitable for us.  I’m wondering if maybe we should try to keep doing just enough of XYZ to ensure that it is supporting ABC – and really put our efforts into building up ABC
  • Meeting Participant: “But we really like doing XYZ.”
  • Other Participants:   “Maybe we could also do such-and-such to generate more XYZ business.”
  • Advisor (quietly): “Yes, but … didn’t we start by saying XYZ isn’t very profitable?  Figuring out how to get more non-profitable business seems like we’re solving the wrong problem.”

The next twenty minutes of the meeting went on in a similar vein.

Lessons Learned

In this particular case, the firm’s management team is populated by people who are bright and eager, but who are lacking in managerial training and experience.  The HR leader – playing the role of “The Advisor,” above – often has to serve as the “wise veteran.”  Whether or not this group is able to learn from this dialogue, redeploy resources, and go on to thrive in the new economy, remains to be seen.  I think the point about HR’s role as an internal advisor, though, is a valid one.

Presidents (of the U.S. and companies) are notoriously eager to hear unvarnished truth from those outside “the bubble” – precisely because such advice is so hard to get.  In many organizations, HR can fill this role.  We don’t run a line of business and we aren’t invested in any particular product or service (we serve the company as a whole).

While we help managers manage through the day to day trench warfare, we’re not “in” the trenches in the same way managers are.  We don’t, thus, have “a dog in the fight” in the same way line managers do.  This should allow us to “step back” and see the big picture in ways that those in the heat of the battle just can’t, due to nothing more than human nature and the limitation of our view.

Do we serve as our organization’s objective internal advisor … or are we as caught up in internecine warfare like all other functions (i.e., we all have our “pet projects”)?  Where should HR be in this?  What is your experience?

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